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Montana's smallest schools navigate students' return

Posted at 4:30 PM, Aug 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-01 18:30:24-04

Every school district across the country is finalizing plans for this fall. But what do those plans look like when less than a dozen students attend the school, and they’re all in one classroom?

At Wolf Creek Elementary School, 11 kids are enrolled this year. While their situation is unique, school leaders say even a rural one-room schoolhouse must make changes to welcome students back safely.

“I feel we’re pretty lucky to have our small community and our small school,” said Michelle Wirth, the school’s business manager. Her two young children are also entering the 1st and 2nd grade at Wolf Creek this year, and she says they’re eager to go back to school. “I think I would feel more nervous for my kids if they had to go to a bigger school.”

“From what I’ve heard from parents, they want kids to be in school if we can be safe,” said Korrin Kenck-Vanderloos, the supervising teacher. They submitted a plan for in-person teaching this week and are waiting to hear if it’s approved.

This year, they’re paying attention to CDC and OPI guidelines, focusing on keeping the school sanitized and social distancing. They bought individual desks for each student, so kids can sit apart, instead of at their usual tables. They will also ask the students, who range from kindergarten to 5th grade, to social distance at lunch.

Under their proposed plan masks aren’t required, but there will be some available, as well as face shields. According to Kenck-Vanderloos, the majority of their students are in 1st and 2nd grade, so she believes masks may be difficult for that age group.

“We’re trying our very best to make it as normal as we can, as safe as we can,” Kenck-Vanderloos said.

Some challenges a larger school district might face don’t exist in Wolf Creek. They don’t have a school bus, and there isn’t a need to separate classrooms.

“Even though it’s multiple grades, they’re all in the same classroom together,” Kenck-Vanderloos said. “So it’s like one classroom that gets to move around the school, versus having to contain so many more classrooms.”

But as teachers and parents, safety is still on their minds. That’s why they say they’re planning to work closely with families, no matter what this school year looks like.

“We have people in our community who went to this school, you know, years and years and years ago,” Wirth said. “We just have a lot of support here.”

Wolf Creek used distance learning in the spring, after the pandemic forced schools to close. Kenck-Vanderloos said school ended abruptly, and there were issues with technology, including making sure kids had a way to get online with stable internet connection for video.

According to OPI, Montana has about 60 one-room schoolhouse still in use, the most in the United States.

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